Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Infant Baptism: The Great Equalizer

Infant Baptism is the New Testament version of Circumcision, the ancient rite practiced by the Israelites as the mark of God's love in their lives, the claim of God upon them, that they, and their children, belong to God, not by their own efforts, or their own choice, or their intelligence or spiritual sensitivity, but rather by the sovereign declarations of God, that "I will be your God, and you will be my people."

God made it clear, from the covenant made with Sarah and Abraham, that children, too, belong, right from the start, and while the ancient rite belonged only to the male child, the New Testament expands the rite to include girls, too - the purpose, the intent, of the respective rites, are the same, but now in Christ, it's clear: all children belong to God, and nothing says that more clearly, and directly, than baptism, the great equalizer for us all - that in Christ, there are no more the distinctions that humans love to make: neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free: ethnic, gender and social.

No one choses their baptism; it's chosen for them, by their families, by the community of faith around them, and ultimately, by the love of God, the primal moving of the Holy Spirit, the a prior grace of God, that moves and works and creates anew, before we know anything about it, before we ask for it, or claim it, or do anything at all on our part.

Hence no one can point to their baptism as a self-affirming sign of any sort of spiritual decision, as in "I did this, I chose to be baptized, I went forward at a revival, I felt the leading of the Spirit, and welcomed it." Or, "I felt the leading of the Spirit, and resisted it for a long, I fought against God [this is the stuff of testimony, the stuff that gets the juices flowing] and then I could no longer resist, and so I surrendered to God."

Notice the dominate of the pronoun "I" in all of this?

There is no "I" in infant baptism; the "I" doesn't exist, because infant baptism is of God, through the community, through the family; it's primal, it's basic, it's not of our own decision, and for the rest of our lives, as with circumcision, we are marked by the water of baptism, in the eyes of God, in the eyes of the community, and in our own eyes, too, though we may do our best to deny it, to forget it, to live contrary to it, but no one can undo the mark of circumcision, and no one can wipe off the water of baptism.

Believer's Baptism, on the other hand, is all about the "I" ... and that's the cause of so much dissension and distress in evangelical communities, creating a spiritual rivalry in which the believer is made the central actor, and when it comes to worship in such communities, "stars" are born who have the most spectacular stories of conversion, resistance, surrender, and then victory over the dark forces of Satan, and so on.

If we begin with the "I" in all of this, that's where we end, and there's nothing more deadly to the work of God than when the "I" assumes control, even when masked with the language of surrender and humility, as in "God has done it all," when in fact, the believer makes it clear that it was their decision, their moment of surrender, their will, their moment to decision, and though God played a part, it was the believer who finished the deal and subsequently plays the central role through prayer, Bible reading, witnessing, fellowship and faith. All of these are important, of course, for all of us, but evangelical communities, these are the tools the believer uses to maintain faith, whereas in reality, these are the gifts of the Spirit, and like John put it, "I must grow smaller, and he must grow larger."

When the "I" is dominant, we have rivalries, dissensions and distinctions - as I heard years ago, "Me graduate school Christian; you kindergarten Christian. What's wrong with you?"

The "testimony" trail in evangelicalism provides the platform of stardom, the "witness" of the "saved," who tell their stories with flourish, and, I suspect, plenty of embellishment, to eager crowds, crowds looking for encouragement, for thrill, for confirmation of their own ego in the spiritual realm.

When it comes to testimony, what did a Jew say, other than "I belong to God, and that's not my decision, it's God's"? ... maybe adding, "I wish God would leave me alone."

What can a Christian say, except the very same thing?

"I belong to God, and that's not my decision, it's God's decision, God's work, God's purpose flowing through the width and breadth of history, from the beginning, and reaching to the very end, however that will be."

And because it's God's decision, from before the foundation of the earth, there is nothing now that can separate us from the love of God in Christ ... what God establishes, God protects; what God initiates, God finishes, and to God be the glory.

And in a weary world where "our glory" plays the central world, much to our sorrow and much to the harm of our world, the message of grace, sovereign, full and complete, becomes the glass of cool water in a hot and thirsty world.

The message of grace, resplendently portrayed in the moment of infant baptism, when this little squiggling, squirming, diaper-pooping, child is touched with the water, and the minister says, "In the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, in the name of the Holy Spirit" ... in the name of all that is good, all that is God, all that is right and beautiful, hopeful and redeeming, "you are baptized! Now and forever more, you belong to God, not because of this baptism, but because of God's decision, made in the heart of God, for sake of God's purposes, God's creation, God's work. And what God has done is revealed and confirmed in waters of baptism."

And, of course, for those who come to faith later in life, it's really all the same - the same intent on God's part, the same purpose, the same grounding - not in the believer can any of this be found but only in the mercy of God. Whereas we're often tempted to point to ourselves in these matters, baptism  erases all such efforts to glorify ourselves.

For the adult being baptized, the language is the same: "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. By the mercies of God, full and complete, you belong to God, now and forever more. not because of this baptism, but through the work of the Spirit, who does it all, the giver of life, unto the glory of God."

Yes, to God be the glory!

And for me, there is no clearer statement of such power than in the moment of an infant baptism.